Alternative therapies: Little suckers a first taste of unusual medicines

By Andrew Koubaridis, Lincoln Tan

Mehdi Jaffari (right) told Andrew Koubaridis he needed to relax as the leeches were applied to his arm. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Mehdi Jaffari (right) told Andrew Koubaridis he needed to relax as the leeches were applied to his arm. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In this new series Herald reporters try out alternative relaxation and remedies.

An increasing range of relaxation therapies and health treatments, once practised only on distant shores, are being offered by recent migrants.

From dripping hot oil to sleeping on rocks, and to using blood-sucking leeches, these remedies are said to offer various health benefits.

Herald reporters have tried some of them and over the next five days will write about what they found.

They include Japanese ganbanyoku, Indian ayurveda, Korean jimjjilbang and leech therapy, believed to have originated in ancient Greece.

A UMR Research survey on the beliefs of New Zealanders, which was released exclusively to the Herald, found a majority believed in alternative remedies.

Nearly three out of four believed arnica reduces bruising and slightly over half believed that homeopathic remedies are scientifically proven.

A 2008 Massey University study on immigrant doctors practising non-Western medicine found that in many cases they had set up because of barriers to their registration as medical doctors here. "The practice was marginalised as alternative and complementary, which contrasted sharply with a status equal to Western medicine in the country of origin," the report said.

"The barriers to registration ... included English language, cost, and reputed difficulties."

However, the study found most of those who sought these therapies were New Zealand European, Maori and Pacific Islanders while immigrant clients from the doctor's country of origin made up only between 10 and 15 per cent.

"Some of the traditional treatments, like acupuncture, have gained credibility because it was being recognised by the likes of ACC," said Professor Paul Spoonley, who supervised the study. "Kiwis are travelling a great deal more these days and are becoming more aware of these traditional therapies and remedies from what they see and experience overseas."

Leech therapy

Mehdi Jaffari, who practices leech therapy in Auckland, Australia and Malaysia, says the therapy has "gone global" since Greek physician Nicander in Colophon was recorded as using them in 200 BC.

Dr Jaffari, aged 57, originally from Iran, said he learned the practice from his Iranian father and that the art has been passed down for generations in his family. Today, he runs what is believed to be the country's only specialised leech therapy centre, Life Clinic Hirudotherapy, on the North Shore.

Dr Jaffari says medical leeches can treat problems ranging from arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis and high blood pressure to bronchitis.

"Their saliva has enzymes that helps break blood clots, and widens blood vessels to stop bacteria growth and prevent inflammation. It also helps blood circulation and flow," he said.

The medicinal hirudo leeches, which are used at his clinic, can help reduce wrinkles and stimulate circulation in reattachment operations for organs with critical blood flow, he claims. "These creatures are God's gift to nature, and nature's gift to mankind to keep us in good health."

- Lincoln Tan

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FASCINATING BUT A BIT DRAINING

Watching leeches triple in size while gorging on my blood was not at the top of my list of things to do in my life - but it was impressive.

I couldn't take my eyes off the little suckers as they feasted on my blood for more than an hour.

There were two of them - black with a streak of gold, slimy and wet.

Leeches, therapist Mehdi Jaffari explains to me, can be very therapeutic.

They inject an enzyme into the body like an anaesthetic, encourage blood flow and circulation, widen blood vessels and can help to prevent inflammation.

I didn't have any pain in my arm but if I had the leeches would take care of it, Mr Jaffari said. The worst part, and the point of the exercise for me, was to dispel the myths around leeches.

An unfortunate scene in the movie Stand By Me had had me fearful of leeches since my childhood but Mr Jaffari said they do not deserve their reputation. "Your hands are trembling, just relax," he said to me.

"I'm not scared at all, actually," I replied, with more conviction than I felt, as he brought out a big container with dozens of leeches swimming in water.

The bite was no more than a slight pinch, more comparable to a mosquito bite. I couldn't feel anything after that but watched with intrigue as the leeches grew larger and larger.

After they had finished the wounds they left were not painful at all. The only discomfort came from the knowledge something was draining your blood.

- Andrew Koubaridis

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THE SERIES

Today: Greek leech therapy
Tomorrow: Korean jimjjilbang
Thursday: Indian ayurveda
Friday: Thai yoga massage
Saturday: Japanese ganbanyoku

- NZ Herald

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